British TV Streamer Hits EU Copyright Roadblock

(CN) – A British law that allows internet television services to stream network programming to users in the region where the original broadcast was made violates EU copyright law, the European Court of Justice held Wednesday.

Internet streaming service TV Catchup has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with British television networks ITV, Channel Four and Channel 5 over its livestreaming of the networks’ shows. The networks claim TV Catchup’s rebroadcasts amount to copyright infringement, as a “communication to the public” under British copyright law.

In 2011, the U.K. high court asked the European Court of Justice to weigh in on whether online streaming was a communication to the public, and the Luxembourg-based court affirmed that it is. Accordingly, the British court ruled that TV Catchup’s livestreams without network consent was prohibited but provided the company with a defense: a subsection of British copyright law permits retransmission by cable to users in the region where the original broadcast was made.

The networks appealed, arguing that defense is limited solely to conventional cable networks and doesn’t apply to internet streaming services. The appellate court then asked the EU high court to decide whether the law’s subsection is compatible with EU law at all.

In a 10-page preliminary ruling, the Luxembourg-based court said EU law doesn’t allow member states to create legislation permitting rebroadcasting without permission – not for conventional cable, and not for internet services. The point of the law is to “establish a high level of protection of authors, allowing them to obtain an appropriate award for the use of their works,” the court wrote.

Although the EU law does have a few very limited exceptions to this rule, the parties agree Catchup TV’s retransmission of the networks’ programming doesn’t fall within any of the exceptions, the court said.

Allowing cable or internet services to rebroadcast any networks’ programming – including networks with public service obligations – would lead to less copyright protection and defeat the purpose of the EU’s law, the court said.

The outcome of the case rests in the hands of the British appellate court, though the EU court’s preliminary ruling is binding on the U.K. court.